Fraggin’ … frickin’ … frackin’ … oh, that f-word again

I’ve tried a different tack now — I’ve left several comments on Matt Nisbet’s very own blog, in the fading hope that he’ll actually pay attention to what I’m saying, rather than what he imagines I’m saying, or what other people tell him that they imagine I’m saying. Comments there are held up for moderation, so in case you really want fast feedback, I’ve tossed my comments below the fold here where you can savage them instantly … or you can head on over to Framing Science and state your piece there.

Nisbet writes about Steve Case on Framing and Dawkins, which is basically a post of some fan mail from Steve Case. We already know that some people agree with him—this does nothing to help me understand what Mooney and Nisbet are telling me to do.

The weirdest thing is that he plays up Case (deservedly, I agree) to a high degree — agreeing with Nisbet does wonders for your reputation.

Case has been in the trenches and on the front lines for the past three decades. He probably has more experience working with science teachers and dealing with the news media than anyone in the country. Indeed, he is perhaps the most successful and savvy ambassador for science education in America.

Case is smart and media-friendly and he certainly deserves more attention. I’m just struck by the fact that in the WaPo article, Nisbet went out of his way to slam Richard Dawkins and call him a failure. Case is an educator in Kansas. No disrespect intended, and Case has certainly persevered wonderfully, but when presented with the equations Dawkins = Failure and Case = Success, I find myself hoping for more failure. Is there some criterion for success here other than agreeing with Nisbet?

So here’s my comment:

Yes, Steve Case is one of the good guys. Now imagine that my strategy for getting everyone behind my plan (whatever it is) was to begin by slamming him.

If the defenders of evolution wanted to give their creationist adversaries a boost, it’s hard to see how they could do better than Steve Case, the famed University of Kansas scientist who tries to accommodate religion in science.

Why, everyone who respects the fellow and appreciates his work would instantly be predisposed against me.

That’s “framing”, right?

So when I read your WaPo article that started in just that alienating way, I had two possible interpretations. One is that you are a tin-eared incompetent at this framing business, which means I ought not to pay attention to what you say. The other is that you seem to be a smart guy and you’ve studied these rhetorical strategies for years, and that you’ve actually made a cunning, conscious decision to stick the knife in a subset of the people who fight creationism in order to curry favor for your ideas in the public eye.

You may “have the best interests of [your] community at heart”, but you’ll have to understand that the impression I have is that either you have your heart in the right place but you’re very bad at this, or your community is not my community and you’re poising yourself to oppose mine.

Is there a third possibility? I don’t know. I keep waiting for you to offer an alternative.

He posts more fannish support, quoting two articles On Framing, Two More Candles in the Dark, which purport to explain why some of us are critical of Nisbet/Mooney. I guess I am an awful communicator, because I thought I’ve been explaining rather plainly why I find myself less than satisfied with the framing arguments.

Ho hum. Neither Orac nor Chad are anywhere near the mark. I spend more of my time now trying to sell science than I ever did before, which is why I was initially looking forward to your articles and was so disappointed when I read them. I am looking for the best way to promote science; the problem that Chad overlooks is that everywhere I look in my discipline, the primary obstacle is religion. Apparently, though, it’s the one problem we’re never, ever supposed to address, because people have this automatic deferral to religious authority. How about if some of us work to end that, eh?

We opponents have repeatedly stated our objections. Why do you ignore them to favor second or third hand guesswork?

I am not dead set against better communication tools, and would welcome advice. My primary complaints from the very beginning were that 1) you haven’t explained how to use these nebulous frames in a way I can understand and use. 2) You have muddled up suggestions about how to communicate with what to communicate; a communication strategy that tells me I’m supposed to simply abandon a significant part of my message is useless to me. And 3) while telling us that we have to maintain a conciliatory tone to the religious community, you have taken an antagonistic tone to the atheist community; there’s some dissonance there that discredits your message, since apparently you aren’t going to practice what you preach.

It’s nice that you’re leaving comments on other blogs. The problem is that none of those comments have actually answered any of our criticisms. Is it just easier to answer questions that some people imagine that we’ve asked? If you’re serious about trying to understand why we criticize, maybe you’d be best off paying attention to what we say are the basis of our criticisms, rather than what people who don’t share our views are claiming are our reasons.

Finally, he quotes the transcript of his interview on NPR: Are we asking scientists to be advocates? To spin false information? Read the transcript. So I read the transcript. It seems to be the kind of thing the Nisbet Fan Club would find satisfying, but it raises yet more objections in my mind — it’s like the man is talking about the politics in Tibet, while I’m asking about the weather in Croatia. It doesn’t help, and it only confirms that I can’t expect much assistance from the “framers”.

Once again, I state my problems with that interview.

You would think folks like PZ et al, who are professional educators, would know that “Framing” is what you do all the time in teaching, especially in teaching classes for non-science students.

You would think…so why is the ‘framing’ message precisely the opposite, that we don’t know squat?

Notice, though, what Nisbet says:

You start recasting the issue in ways that are still true to the science but, in fact, actually you’re not talking about the science.

That is not my interest or my mission, and in a lot of ways I see that as the antithesis of my mission. I do not go into the classroom and say, “Genetics is really important! Here’s why you need to learn it! There might be a job in it for you some day!”, and on and on for a semester, without ever actually telling them what genetics is or how it works. What Nisbet is describing are cheerleaders, not players or participants in the process.

He is not laying out an appropriate role for scientists.

We do take into account the knowledge base of our audience. We do try to explain matters at an appropriate level, and we aspire to making it enjoyable. We do tell stories in the classroom. But one thing absolutely essential to who we are and what we do is explain how we know what we know, and why the evidence leads us in specific directions. Asking us to avoid doing that completely misses our strengths and our interests — it’s like complaining that construction workers aren’t good realtors, and for those of us with some pride in our discipline, it’s an affront.


  1. sailor says

    Humans frame automatically, we change our facial expressions and the way we speak according to the audience.
    Maybe some of these framing tech guys can offer somthing useful we have not thought of. If they stand the test of being right they will be adopted.
    This idea of bending over backwards till you can see uranus would not seem to be the way to go. Poeple make their judgements according to the information that they receive. As more and more information comes out into the public arena in favor of athiesm and the faults of things like ID, so the whole balence of where the norm is changes. We desperately need it to change away from fantasy to reality. This is why Dawkins and Harris are doing a great job, and what is more important than framing is that scientists are willing to speak and stand up and be counted. That in the long run will be the most effective.

  2. Soren says

    I find it quite funny that these guys are so dedicated to framing. When I look at their articles and supporters they explain in excruciating detail how you should mold the message for the receiver.

    Yet when people like PZ got upset, the framers never stopped for a second to think that – just perhaps – the problem wasn’t with the people they were trying to communicate with, but with how they themselves framed the message!

    Perhaps PZ has misunderstood their message 100%, but who’s fault is that? If you just blame any misunderstanding on the receiver of your message, then why bother with framing in the first place?

  3. says

    You did a good job explaining why this framing stuff is nonsense. I’m curious too, as to why they think we need this when we have dozens of popular-level science books, a good selection of popular-level science magazines, and hardly anyone reads it. Framing isn’t going to help us get a message to people who don’t want to hear it, we need to change the education system so that people are actually interested in science and want to learn more. Until they have the desire to learn, nothing will get to them.

  4. says

    (Cross-posted at EvolutionBlog.)

    I woke up this morning from a dream in which fr*ming was mixed up with smuggling conflict diamonds. Maybe I need to take a vacation from the Internet.

    But before I do that, I’d like to remind everybody of Sean Carroll’s remarks:

    I’m sympathetic to the argument that atheists shouldn’t be obnoxious and insulting; in fact, I think it’s a good strategy in all sorts of situations. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, etc. But it does not follow that we should keep quiet about comforting illusions because those are the only things standing between the poor dears and overwhelming existential anxiety. If people ask whether, as scientists, we believe in God, we should respect them enough to tell the truth — whatever we think that is. That doesn’t mean we have to go door-to-door spreading the good word of the laws of nature. It just means that we should be honest about what we actually think, giving the best arguments we have for whatever that may be, and let people decide for themselves what to believe.

    Arrogant or not, as a matter of fact Dawkins and company have done a great service to the cause of atheism: they have significantly shifted the Overton Window. That’s the notion, borrowed from public-policy debates, of the spectrum of “acceptable opinion” on an issue. At any given time, on any particular question, the public discourse will implicitly deem certain positions to be respectable and worthy of civilized debate, and other positions to be crazy and laughable. The crucial part of this idea is that the window can be shifted by vigorous advocacy of positions on one extreme. And that’s just what Dawkins has done.

    Carroll provides some evidence to support this claim, which is nice.

    So, one can justify being a Dawkinsian using sociological concepts, or one can demand that Dawkins shut his yap-hole for sociological reasons. This is an excellent example of the reason why I, despite my interest in human beings, went into physics. As Tom Lehrer once sang,

    They can snow all their clients
    By calling it “science” —
    Although it’s only sociology!

  5. John says

    PZ, you wrote:
    “I spend more of my time now trying to sell science than I ever did before,…”

    I don’t see that. You blog about science a lot, but the point that they are trying to make is that you aren’t selling it. You’re very good a preaching to the choir, but let’s look at evidence.

    Do you have any evidence that you’ve changed anyone’s mind away from ID?

  6. Mark says

    This business reminds me of the way the Democratic Party self destructs. It also reminds me of how Howard Dean framed his own beliefs with respect to those who want to pander to the right wing: “I’m from the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”

  7. says

    Do you have any evidence that you’ve changed anyone’s mind away from ID?

    Since framing is not about convincing people that their fundament is wrong, I can’t see why this would be relevant. As Mooney/Nisbet explains it, you should frame science in such a way that ID believers can accept it. That doesn’t change their mind away from ID.

  8. John says

    “As Mooney/Nisbet explains it, you should frame science in such a way that ID believers can accept it. That doesn’t change their mind away from ID.”

    It should change some of them, and framing is important in any persuasive rhetoric, including changing minds.

  9. Brian says

    I’ll just breifly wiegh in here and say that I find PZ’s thinking and writing on this subject to be excellent. I think he strikes a far better balance between critizism and interest than anyone else I’ve read so far – although judging from the comment above, I need to go read some more of Sean Carrol…

  10. says

    I agree with the above comments. If they are unable to frame their own arguments for their audience then what good are they? I also agree with Stuart – professors are doing a fine job with their message, their audience wants to hear it so framing is largely unnecessary. It’s the elementary and highschool science teachers who need to promote science as something worthwhile.

  11. Scott Belyea says

    I am not dead set against better communication tools, and would welcome advice.

    Hmmm … I suggest you need to frame that attitude a bit more effectively. To this lay reader, you sure as hell don’t come across that way.

  12. reallyordinary says

    John – I’m just an average Canadian with minimal scientific education; when I first started reading this blog, I didn’t know a lot about evolution or ID, but I was dimly aware that there was some kind of Controversy and I had the vague, media-impregnated sense that there were Problems with Darwinian theory and that “the theory of evolution” was somehow on the ropes and in danger of being overturned by this unruly Alternative that an evil cabal of LiberalEliteScientists were bent on suppressing by any means necessary. Okay, I never really bought that cabal part… but it seemed to be a crucial part of the narrative.

    Daily visits here have since knocked all that fluffy delusionality straight out of me and opened my eyes to the total moral and intellectual bankruptcy and scientific illegitimacy of the ID/neo-creationist movement. So while I wasn’t a “believer” in ID, previously, exactly, I was at least somewhat open to it, and thought that there might be something there. PZ was instrumental in ending that. He’s conclusively demonstrated – for me, at any rate – that there’s no “there” there.

    So… here’s one mind he’s changed away from ID.

  13. CalGeorge says

    Framing: hammer your allies, cater to your opponents, hope for the best.

    The point of this blog (I think) is to advocate, uncompromisingly and intelligently, for the virtues of a sane, science-informed approach to politico-scientific issues of the day.

    If someone wants framing, kow-tows and catering, they can go somewhere else.

    There are tons of blogs that will serve. Have fun.

    Since when is a strong voice of opposition a bad thing? People need to know that there are creationists and IDiots and religious nuts out there who mislead, con, distort and bullshit.

    PZ informs us of their doings, so that his readers can challenge them, analyze their ideas, and basically chew them up and spit them out. Ptoooie!

    Also, I am not a scientist but I think PZ does a terrific job at making science accessible. He promotes science blogs and is always pointing out the efforts scientists are making to promote their ideas.

    And he makes it fun.

  14. John says

    But you just said that you weren’t a believer, so I wouldn’t count yours as a changed mind.

  15. says

    Over at EvolutionBlog, both Tyler DiPietro and I have suggested that we get back to useful and fun things like Egnor-bashing. Really. Nothing practical is going to come out of this fr*ming talk — nothing practical has come out of it except Greg Laden’s suggestion, way back when, that we say “evolutionary biology” instead of “evolutionary theory”. (My suggestion: “principle of evolution” rather than “theory of evolution”. Your mileage may vary.)

  16. John says

    “Since when is a strong voice of opposition a bad thing?”

    No one’s claiming that a strong voice is a bad thing. We’re claiming that framing makes one’s voice a lot stronger, in fact.

    “People need to know that there are creationists and IDiots and religious nuts out there who mislead, con, distort and bullshit.”

    And how would strong framing preclude that?

    Let me give you an example of really stupid framing from our side: harping on the criterion of peer review. Now, using dishonesty, the IDers have several peer-reviewed papers to cite.

    Instead, a far better frame would have been to ask, “Can you show me a single datum that has been produced by testing an ID or creationist hypothesis?” because that is what doing real science is all about–even falsifying your hypothesis generates data.

    Not a single datum exists, and that handful of peer-reviewed ID papers instead becomes a rhetorical weapon to show the scientific uselessness of ID. For example, pointing out that the Behe & Snoke paper was a simulation that contained no data, as well as the fact that it was about an evolutionary hypothesis, not an ID one.

    Also, this gives us a chance to frame this as a matter of faith, in that not a single ID proponent has sufficient faith to put an ID hypothesis to a real test. For us real scientists, having confidence in a hypothesis makes us eager to test it.

  17. eewolf says

    Matt Nismet: “We are not asking that you or Dawkins stop talking. As I posted over at Greg Laden’s blog and as we wrote in the WPost, there will always be a small audience for science and a small audience for criticism of religion.”

    If the point is to spread science and rational thought further, to educate, it would seem that the goal is to increase the audience. If we accept the foregone conclusion that science and rationality will always have a small audience, then why bother?

    It seems they are arguing that you can win political battles by “framing” without delivering the science. What good is that? I don’t even want that. What good is winning some short-term political goals without real education? Your wins will just get rolled back with the tide.

    And the statement is condescending to Mr. Dawkins and Mr. Myers in the extreme. And every other scientist making an effort to educate. “Go ahead and write for your small static audience and let us take care of the rest.”

    Bugger off.

  18. Carlie says

    Framing example of the day:

    Partial-birth abortion is a process that halfway delivers a baby and then sucks out its brain.

    IDX is a procedure that ensures the safest removal of a stillborn fetus with the least physical and mental harm to the pregnant woman.

    Both could technically be considered correct statements, but each is framed radically differently. I look at framing as simply knowing your audience and what language will get your message across to them most efficiently. Apparently everyone involved in the recent Supreme Court proceedings didn’t know how to get the information across very efficiently. Or, the members of SCOTUS simply weren’t listening. It’s impossible to convey anything if the audience won’t pay attention, but I don’t see how it’s at all possible to argue that the language you use in communicating isn’t important.

  19. Steve LaBonne says

    They’re just proving Greg Laden’s point- that they’ve given up on real long-term atttitudinal change before they even start, and consequently can’t see their way to anything but very short-term tactical maneuvers.

    BTW How many books has Richard Dawkins sold? How many has Chris Mooney sold? Small audience??

  20. says

    “Carroll provides some evidence to support this claim, which is nice.”

    He may be right, but I don’t see his evidence. His claim is that the more recent “God vs. Science” title shows progress past the “Science Finds God” title, and that you never would have seen “God vs. Science” only a few years earlier. He neglects a few things. For example, the actual “Science Finds God” article speaks of “those two old warhorses science and religion” and points to a number of conflicts between the two.

    Also, Time ran a story “Reconciling God and Science” only a few months before running “God vs. Science.” Both in title and content, it’s fairly similar to Newsweek’s “Science Finds God.” Did Dawkins shift the Overton window in only a few months, or might it be that comparing *two* magazine articles doesn’t really constitute evidence?

  21. David Wilford says

    Blake S., thanks for the reminder about Sean Carroll’s previous words on the subject. It isn’t about finding one overarching “frame” as much as making sure that your message is heard by your audience. That’s how I think of “framing” – it’s not about whether the message is truthful or understood, but that it just gets a chance to be heard. D’Souza and his ilk demonize Dawkins because they want to deny him a certain audience (basically people of faith), which doesn’t say much for the confidence they place in their veracity of their own arguments.

  22. Caledonian says

    We’re losing the good resources we DID have.

    Look at Discover magazine. They used to be a fantastic resource for laypeople and scientists who wanted to learn about findings outside of their field. Then they were published by the people who run Penthouse, and it shows. Even the layouts are different from what they used to be ten, fifteen years ago: wider margins, greater spaces, less text and more full-page pictures.

    I’ve heard similar complaints that SciAm is being dumbed down.

    Things like The Discovery Channel are worthless dribble, and shows like NOVA are on more infrequently and on fewer PBS stations than they used to me (IMO).

  23. David Wilford says

    Um, if Nisbet thinks there’s only a “small audience” for books on the critisism of religion, he’s missing a few thousand years worth of words written on the subject.

    It’s about time we had some books on the subject of religion from atheist writers like Dawkins and Dennett available in bookstores and displayed in the Religion section. You have to start somewhere, and as I recall Martin Luther only had a few pathetic pages worth of writing on the subject of religion nailed to a door when he first started out.

  24. Steve LaBonne says

    I’ve heard similar complaints that SciAm is being dumbed down.

    Alas, that train actually left the station quite a while ago. If you’re not familiar with what is put out nowadays under that once-illustrious name, do yourself a favor and don’t look at it- it will give you severe indigestion.

  25. delphi_ote says

    “Hmmm … I suggest you need to frame that attitude a bit more effectively. To this lay reader, you sure as hell don’t come across that way.”

    Criticizing PZ for failing at something they can’t even explain is rather lame. He’s repeatedly asked, “What steps do I take?” That question has never been answered directly. How much more can he bend over backwards to convince them to tell him exactly what he’s doing wrong?

    Also, “you sure as hell” isn’t framing your attitude very effectively. This whole issue seems to be fraught with people in glass houses who like to throw stones.

  26. says

    I spend more of my time now trying to sell science than I ever did before,

    I see – looking over at Framing Science – that Matt beat me to it (and John here, a bit, but I’ll babble on nevertheless: much of this may spring from the audiences to whom you’re selling science to, and your specific role in those settings. For example, in the classroom, I’d think you’re addressing students there more or less voluntarily, who are (hopefully) motivated to learn either for its own sake, or as a means to an end. And, as you point out, your mission there is very specifically to explain how we know what we know, and why the evidence leads us in specific directions” – everything else is either additional to, or in service of, that goal.

    Really, I’m agreeing with you on this point – though look, it starts off framed as a dispute, how exciting :(. M&N seem to think scientists should be doing the recasting – now, no doubt there are some who are/would be quite good at it, and that’s important too, but it’s very much a second hat, so to speak. These really are very different roles. Specialization, y’know – much more efficient.

    On the religious issue, now – well (to say nothing original again), M&N really showed as well as told, although I presume unintentionally – they linked framing to (sigh) ‘appeasement,’ and managed to alienate a chunk of their audience. Had they framed it differently, they still would have a lot to explain, but they wouldn’t be doing so in the face of a strong wind, so to speak.

    Stuart: “I’m curious too, as to why they think we need this when we have dozens of popular-level science books, a good selection of popular-level science magazines, and hardly anyone reads it. Framing isn’t going to help us get a message to people who don’t want to hear it, we need to change the education system so that people are actually interested in science and want to learn more.

    Along the lines of what I was thinking – but I think this falls apart in the last sentence. The goal is to give some of these folks some reason to stop and listen. Changing the education system is a concurrent but rather ongoing and long-range thing – M&N’s point was more on, say, dealing with public attitudes towards global warming. Building a better boat is a good goal, but we also need to get to shore before this one sinks.

  27. Dave Eaton says

    I don’t guess I really understand what the ‘f’ word means either. I think that the major hurdle in talking about science to the faithful is epistemological. You have to get over the barrier of a worldview that says belief in a teacher or magic holy book trumps evidence.

    People who are ‘faith-based’ (in my experience) have a hard time believing that scientists believe things based on evidence. They see science as an alternative faith commitment, and find it troubling, even idolatrous, part of an evil cabal. It is especially when I talk about evolution to one of the faithful that I have encountered this attitude (I am a chemist and not a biologist, but I sometimes teach a few classes of an intro astronomy course on prebiotic origins of life, and I see it there. It doesn’t come up in freshman chem or organic, but if I had more time, we’d discuss it).

    Once that’s achieved, which is not possible with many people, then we can, IMHO, discuss things rationally with people who are religious. They may be mystified that I apportion belief to evidence, but once I get them to that point, we can talk about what the evidence implies. Even YECs will occasionally concede that evidence points certain ways, but still don’t believe the implications. I can only get them so far- if they want to look at fossils and believe the devil put them there to confuse people, I can’t fix that. If I get them to see why I think what I do, then I’m ahead of where I started, if only marginally.

    OTOH, if there is an evil cabal somewhere, I’m a little hurt that I haven’t been invited…

  28. says

    I’m a little exasperated with the shenanigans over there. Again, Nisbet belittles Dawkins’ sales figures to tout his own influence, in a way that’s getting awfully close to lying with statistics.

    Here’s my comment, that will pop up over there when Nisbet approves it:

    You did it again!

    In a combined and easily read 2000 words, we reached a targeted audience of more than a 1 million who subscribe to Science world wide, and a Sunday readership in the U.S. capital of roughly a million. On top of that, we reached directly the audience at 200 NPR affiliates across the country.

    (Again, just like with the 200,000 who bought Dawkins book, we can’t be sure how many people actually read the piece.)

    You belittle Dawkins by saying he sold “only” 200,000 books, and compare that to the millions who heard you talk in an interview. Are you just ignoring the fact that Dawkins has also been interviewed on the radio in many different markets, reaching far more people than you have? That he has written multiple op-eds, and that others have written op-eds both criticizing and defending him? You keep pulling this strange sleight of hand where you mention his success as an author and then diminish it by saying that many might not have read it, or it was only read by those who are favorably disposed, and you ignore all the other opportunities he has to spread his message that were opened up by the success of the book, but you don’t apply the same qualifiers to your own efforts at outreach on your issues.

    On a personal level, something similar was brought to my attention. Orac, who said something you favored, has an “immensely popular” blog. When I’m mentioned, I have a “small corner of the blogosphere”. You are truly a master of framing.

    However, the bias is overt and more than a little distracting. I see a complete absence of impartiality here, when every metric you bring up is strongly skewed by a combination of rhetoric and inappropriate comparisons.

    It’s more than a little weird. How am I supposed to trust his assessments when it’s like watching the symbols on a one-armed bandit fly by? Does he think Dawkins has never been published in a major newspaper or been interviewed on NPR?

  29. Dave Eaton says

    Based on the last comment, PZ, maybe framing is just politics mispelled…

    If that’s the case, a pox on it. I want scientific people involved in politics as much as possible, and politics involved in science as little as possible.

  30. eewolf says

    I have to comment on this idea that Richard Dawkin’s book is only read by those of like mind. That is simply not true. I think a significant number of younger people, just out of high school, in college and on their own for the first time will read it. Many of them will be from religious families but may also be on the fence. Some may not even buy the book but still have access to it.

    Books have legs, particularly books of this sort. My copy hasn’t been in my possession in several weeks. It has already been read by at least 8 people. Some of those 8 are not atheists. I don’t think this is atypical.

    I think PZ has been extremely patient and open minded on this subject. I think there is much to be gained from opening up communications and framing is a part of that. But it isn’t all of it. It isn’t even most of it. If I may, it is a “small part of the education process.” (Sorry, couldn’t help that) The problem is allowing the framing to dilute the science. Any short-term gains made will be gone before you know it.

  31. Nathaniel says

    I’d like to hear PZ and others respond to a slight change of topic:

    I spend more of my time now trying to sell science than I ever did before…

    This sounds like a good idea, and to me sounds like fun, to run a blog and “sell science”. Clearly many people think that more effort should be put into it.

    But I think it’s clear that “more effort” is just the normal academic BS slang for “that’s nice.. now go back to work.”

    My question for PZ and everyone else is: How? Will this help or hinder getting a tenure-track position? Will it help or hinder getting tenure? This isn’t a question of “I’m not paid to do that,” but more a question of how I can even get or keep a job when I’m doing work that is not valued at all by the institution hiring me.

    Lip service doesn’t count. Show me a hiring procedure that asks for a research statement, a teaching statement, list of publications in peer-reviewed journals, AND a list of publications in the popular press! Or public talks. Or Cafe Scientifiques. Or whatever.

    Please don’t misunderstand.. I deeply love telling people about what I do, and I love to talk physics to laypeople who are interested. But I’ve been postdocing for 7 years with no job in sight, and busting my ass to try to raise my research profile. PZ is apparently doing well in UM Morris, but I honestly don’t understand how unless he has tenure.

    The whole conversation about “framing” is missing the point.. it’s like discussing the fine points of large-unit tactics in a major land war, but you only have ten soldiers; the rest are in the kitchen peeling potatoes.

    –Nathaniel, disillusioned as always.

  32. Mr. G says

    Frames live right next to the rules of Universal Grammar in the Platonic half of Cartesian dualism. There are some turf battles, but, mostly, things are Ideal.

  33. says

    I like Orac, too, and I think he has a fine and valuable blog. I am not trying to belittle him at all, but you know, the stuff coming out of Nisbet right now (comparing a mere 200,000 books sold to 1.3 million listeners to a radio program, or that I’m small and Orac is immense) is 14K gold spin, nothing more, that misleads rather than informs.

  34. Mark says

    Once the “framers” reach the level of public consciousness that Dawkins has had to reach in order to be spoofed on South Park, maybe we can talk again about many people he reaches vs the “framers.”

  35. says

    Nathaniel, I know your pain. I have tenure, but it’s not as if the u stops looking at you — there are still performance reviews that affect salary raises and the big step of promotion to full professor. I had to turn in a CV update a little while ago, and all those extracurricular activities, the popular press articles, the talks and meetings…all just get lumped together under “Service”. Pages and pages of “service” for just the past year. We academics all know how much that counts — it might amount to the dash in doodley-squat. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if in my case it counts for even less than that among the higher-ups who probably squeak in horror at pr from an atheist.

    Right now, it’s a price you pay. To put it in perspective though, it’s a tiny price compared to what it cost you to go into academia in the first place. I’d be much, much richer now if I’d followed my father’s suggestion and become a refrigerator repairman.

  36. says

    If people have trouble when you present a fact or a finding, that’s their problem. Be honest, be open, and stick to your guns. Make your findings and the procedure you used to discover them readily available, and let others try to verify or refute them. And accept the fact that not everybody’s going to accept what you say. You can’t convince everybody, nor should you have to. As the late Robert A. Heinlein once said, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then give up. No sense in making a fool out of yourself.”

  37. Patrick says

    I don’t think the point of PZ’s work, or Dawkin’s work, (or Sagan one generation ago) is to directly change the minds of creationists, ID people, or religious people, and turn them 100% around into metaphysical naturalists or whatnot.

    There are a couple of points, but I don’t think that’s one of them. If that’s the point, well, it must be far and between that it ever happens.

    This stuff does have an effect though, even if it isn’t by directly changing the minds of the certain. It affects the young skeptics by showing them that they’re not alone, and helping them find information to refine their reasoning and their thinking. It affects people who are uncertain, or haven’t thought about issues of religion very much, by showing them that a viable, well supported critique of religion exists. It affects people who don’t buy into the whole religious thing but who think its harmless to have religious involvement in school curriculums understand that there’s actual harms resulting from it, hopefully mobilizing them to fight against religious influence in science education. And it affects the people who are certain, and who definitely believe in religion, by showing them that there’s evidence against their positions and that perhaps their certainty is unjustified.

    Ask bible belt raised atheists in their 20s and 30s about Carl Sagan if you really want to hear how these things make a difference.

  38. says

    I need to see one of two things to personally remain interested in this discussion. One would be a clear statement by M&N in justifying or supporting the idea of proceeding with a theistic evolutionist theme, the other would be a clear statement by M&N rejecting the idea of a theistic evolution theme (for their frame) and something substantive about how to move on. In the former case, I’m not on board but at least I’ll have something to blog about. In the latter case, we can work on this.

    I also would like to reiterate what I personally think is the only really worthwhile and productive thing I’ve personally said about this issue (other than the suggestion I’ve been making for a long time about “evolutionary biology” replacing “evolutionary theory.” This is in answer to M&N’s question about what issues in evolution I think are important … (or words to that effect). To wit:

    ” my goals in engaging the public – that’s pretty simple. I have two goals:

    1. To make scientific thinking something that is widely understood in a reasonably sophisticated way by everybody with a High School diploma, so that people will understand it to some degree when they see it, better understand science “stories” from the press and other sources, and maybe occasionally engage in scientific thinking where they may find it useful; and

    2. To make the prospect of diluting, altering, or otherwise denaturing the teaching of science with religious dogma, socially unacceptable and culturally abhorrent, thus bringing the day to day practice of educational and related social discourse in line with the law. Bringing religious views of any kind into areas of education, research, or any practice that involves science would be viewed with disdain and suspicion on the level of, say, racial segregation in schools. Some people might still want segregation or religion-diluted science, but it is so unacceptable that most would choose to remain silent about it.”

  39. says

    Regarding this comment by Nisbet:

    In a combined and easily read 2000 words, we reached a targeted audience of more than a 1 million who subscribe to Science world wide, and a Sunday readership in the U.S. capital of roughly a million. On top of that, we reached directly the audience at 200 NPR affiliates across the country.

    So when it comes to evidence of commitment to and interest in a cause, people who happen to subscribe to a newspaper or be listening to the radio at a particular hour are comparable to people who sought out and purchased a book on their own initiative, with their own money?

    Of course that isn’t true, and Nisbet doesn’t think any such thing. He’s just omitting context and slanting the facts in the most favorable way possible to himself. I guess this is what they call “framing”.

  40. says

    Greg Laden:

    I’m totally on board with your proposed phrasing change. It is, I think, one of the few concrete ideas to have come out of this whole brouhaha (and remember how long ago you suggested it?). I also like the idea of replacing “theory” in other contexts, such as changing “theory of evolution” to “law” or “principle”, which have lofty, moral-sounding connotations. Other suggestions are, naturally, welcome.

    One last comment, and then I at least will shut up. Everybody does realize that “framing” justifies calling people “Neville Chamberlain atheists”, right?

    The reasoning is straightforward:

    To a person equipped with a decent public-school education, stronger on names and dates than subtleties of motivation, “Neville Chamberlain atheist” is not a bad phrase. It succinctly evokes the spectacle of backing down before a great evil. A person who hears it isn’t likely to forget it, and most of the book-buying public have the high-school history background necessary to understand the reference. It sells the case.

    Now, why might we not like that? I can identify two cases:

    1. Historical inaccuracy. We can say, if we are so inclined, that the picture given us in high school history class is not an accurate portrayal of Chamberlain or the situation of his time. This boils down to saying that the frame is not rooted in the facts.

    2. Contemporary inaccuracy. We could also say that the image of “backing down before a great evil” is not the appropriate way to visualize what people are doing today. In the struggle for rational thought, perhaps the effects of the people called “appeasers” are not what their detractors claim.

    #1 and #2 are, for all practical purposes, independent of one another. A history buff can agree with #1 but dispute #2: “Yeah, we shouldn’t call them Chamberlain atheists, but what they’re doing is still not right.” Contrariwise, an “appeaser” can think they’re doing the right thing and think the Chamberlain appellation is satisfactory (people who put “proud Neville Chamberlain atheist” stickers on their blogs may be doing this).

    The case #1 argument against the “Chamberlain” accusation is, in essence, the argument that a useful frame unsupported by the facts is a bad thing.

    Both Orac and PZ have voiced their distaste for the “Chamberlain” moniker. I believe their arguments both fall into case #1; they may differ on #2. In conclusion, then, the argument against this terminology is that it is bad framing, or more specifically that the divergence of frame from fact is too severe to be redeemed by rhetorical usefulness.

    (I wrote the Chamberlain stuff at Respectful Insolence and was too lazy to rewrite it, so I’m copying it here and at Good Math, Bad Math.)

  41. sailor says

    “It’s more than a little weird. How am I supposed to trust his assessments when it’s like watching the symbols on a one-armed bandit fly by? Does he think Dawkins has never been published in a major newspaper or been interviewed on NPR?”

    Maybe framing looked at another way can be spelt jelousy?

  42. says

    I’m actually going to say something positive about “framing”.

    Read this article on Nisbet’s blog.

    You know, I couldn’t find anything objectionable in it, and quite a bit that was very sensible. He says the Discovery Institute has been good in the past about using them (I think they’re slipping badly lately, though) and that what we have to do is preempt the malicious use of frames by our opponents by coming up with persuasive elements of our own. That’s an argument I could accept. The problem with the Science and WaPo opinion pieces is that he went beyond that into prescribing the content of our message, and basically took sides…and the side wasn’t mine! If only the unwarranted sniping at atheists had been left out of this mess throughout.

    There is still a shortage of specific examples, though. Being exhorted to do a better job of persuading people is OK, but what’s still missing is an explanation of how to frame something, other than doing the ever popular kick Richard Dawkins in the crotch, which wins people over all the time.

  43. says

    Well, Blake, I can still dislike the term and at the same time think that people who label themselves “proud Neville Chamberlain atheists” are twits who deserve the title.

    I disliked the term when I read The God Delusion because I still had a delusion of my own — that there could be something like a freethought community where we’d at least all agree that organized religion was a problem. I could understand where Dawkins was looking for a label to distinguish a certain strain of thinking within that community, but he picked one that was excessively pejorative. Then, of course, the appeasers embraced it as an opportunity to spit on the despised atheists and make common cause with the religious, so it was definitely bad framing, if maybe a good thing anyway — they were so damned enthusiastic about cozying up to the gospel-wallopers that they weren’t very trustworthy allies anyway.

    The experience was very consciousness-raising.

  44. Mr. G says

    I read it. OK, I skimmed it.

    “The Discovery Institute used framing to “spin” the science in ways that cut against the peer-reviewed literature and the overwhelming consensus of scientists.”

    No. They used the decades old effort by the religious right to infiltrate local government, especially school boards. There was no popular discussion until citizens were faced with a fait accompli. To blame this on “framing” is an attempt to validate the miserable little star to which one has hitched one’s wagon.

    Frames are woo.

  45. Mr. G says

    Everyone is meaner than I am.

    Glad to be of service.

    Remember everyone: PZ is moderate. TRUE extremists are lurking just out of view, but waiting to attack. (We’ve come for your souls. Really.)

  46. Gelf says

    The best treatment of “The F Word” I’ve ever seen comes from standup comic, filmmaker and physicist (perhaps not in that order) John Rogers in this brilliant pair of posts:

    Learn to say ‘ain’t’…
    Ain’t Redux

    Be sure to read them both. I cannot summarize the point in a way that does it justice, but the posts are strikingly relevant.

  47. says

    Wow, in light of Carl Zimmer’s recent piece at The Loom on how fragmented discussion of research papers becomes on blogs, this is a real treat. Instead of copying my thoughts into several different threads on several different blogs, I’ll just point where I wrote it first on Greg Laden’s thread. [Isn’t this new idea of using links cool! ;-)]

    In it, I offer a frame for teaching evolution in the class room.

  48. George says

    I would argue that if the whole framing conversation had been initiated by a scientist, science educator or at least someone who had actually been involved with science communication and knew something about it, it probably would not have turned out the way it has.

    Nisbet and Mooney have framed their “sales pitch” for framing science exceedingly poorly. I don’t know for sure what the reason for that is but I can guess that it is at least partly due to the fact that they have a poor understanding of how scientists and science educators actually do communicate science to the public.

    At a bare minimum, before they ever published their article in Science, Mooney and Nisbet should have given it to several scientists to see if it even made sense to them. That’s the purpose of peer review, after all, and it’s really a pity that their article was not peer-reviewed. It could have saved a lot of wasted back and forth on everyones part.

  49. says


    Well, Blake, I can still dislike the term and at the same time think that people who label themselves “proud Neville Chamberlain atheists” are twits who deserve the title.

    In that situation, I’d probably settle for calling the people in question “twits”, rather than keeping alive a term which is (in Orac’s words) vile and idiotic. But hey. To each ‘is own.

    The people who defend the Nisbet-Mooney papers by saying that “all communication is (or involves) framing” miss the point: OK, fine, all communication is framing, so one is the other and the other is one. . . You’re just inventing jargon!

    Larry Moran might say, “Communication is good, but communication which involves framing is bad.” Others would say, “Framing is good, but framing which descends into spin is bad.” The content of these two statements is, as far as I can tell, exactly the same, once you figure out how people are using the words they choose.

    Whether you’re dividing speech between communication and framing or between framing and spin, I don’t really care. Either way, you’ve got to draw a line beyond which statements become, well, vile and idiotic. Has the Mooney-Nisbet paper in Science, their newspaper op-ed or any of the blog posts on this topic helped draw that line or clarify where it should be placed? For me, no.

  50. Ichthyic says

    It’s the elementary and highschool science teachers who need to promote science as something worthwhile.

    actually, they too typically do a good job for the most part.

    what I’d like to see is the goddamn government promoting science as worthwhile.

    can you see chimpy mcgrin leading the crusade for good science education?

    thought not.

    If public officials would start to openly speak about the importance of good science (including evolutionary biology) even to just the damn economy, rather than worrying about offending some religious voting block, we could make some real progress in public attitudes, I think.

    so far, very few have had the courage to stand up and do so, however (or their just dumb as a box of hammers, like in GW’s case).

  51. says

    Side note:

    The following excerpt from Orac’s “Hitler Zombie massacre” post is what I had in mind for my “case #1” critique above.

    It can be argued that the scorn heaped on Chamberlain’s name is not completely fair, because at the time his people overwhelmingly opposed war, and the memory of the mass carnage of World War I contributed to a desire in Chamberlain and the British public at large to avoid another big war almost at all costs. Even the U.S. approved of Chamberlain’s deal. Also, at this point, it was not yet clear that Hitler could not be bargained with.

    As a fellow who got just about the best public-school education an American student could reasonably hope for, including two years of AP history classes (European and United States), I can say from personal experience that a goodly number of well-rounded, book-buying people do not appreciate this. They know the names and dates, roughly speaking, and are therefore vulnerable to memetic infection.

    Know thy audience, indeed.

  52. says

    Well, yeah. I’m not going to be calling them “proud Neville Chamberlain atheists” — they seem to be the ones calling themselves that. “Twit” is much shorter, and would probably fit on their sidebars much more nicely.

  53. Colugo says

    ‘Reconciliationist’ non-theists on religion:

    Scott Atran, anthropologist: “Religion thrives because it addresses people’s deepest emotional yearnings and society’s foundational moral needs, perhaps even more so in complex and mobile societies …”

    Mel Konner, on the goal of ending religious faith: “It is just as futile to get someone to give up using their ears, or love other children as much as their own… Religion fills very basic human needs.”

    E.O. Wilson: “You could say that we evolved to accept one truth — the religious instinct — but then discovered another. And having discovered another, what are we to do? You might say it’s just best to go ahead and accept the two worldviews and let them live side by side. I see no other solution. I believe they can use their different worldviews to solve some of the great problems — for example, the environment.”

  54. Mr. G says

    Shorter ‘Reconciliationist’ non-theists on religion’:

    So, let’s give the rubes the lies they crave. There’s money in it.

    Now, that’s not fair. They didn’t really say that. Did they?

  55. Mr. G says

    Crap, doesn’t Soros pay these scienceblogs people enough to staff their operations 24/7? What kind of service is this? I’ve come here for an argument!

  56. says

    Nisbet’s website seems to be only accepting comments which benefit his ego (wallet?), at this point.

    One of the major purposes and benefits of teaching evolution IS to get people (southerners?) to realize that the Bible is BULL, so they stop doing stupid stuff like outlawing abortion and outlawing same-sex marriage.

    Science class is more fun than church anyway.

  57. lylebot says

    The more I read about it, the more I think “framing” is about blaming scientists for the failure to stem climate change and the push to get creationism in the classroom. Rather than point fingers within, we should be blaming the non-scientists that lie and smear their opponents in order to achieve their goals.

  58. Mr. G says

    we should be blaming the non-scientists that lie and smear their opponents in order to achieve their goals.

    That wasn’t hard, was it. lylebot only misses the fact that these non-scientists were given positions behind the microphones in virtually every market in the U.S by right wing fanatics. It cost money to have that happen.

    But no, we’re told, it was a problem with “framing”. Nothing to do with a failure of the ruling class to protect their own interests by plunking down hard cash. Now we’re supposed to pull their chestnuts out of the fire.

    I think we can do better.

  59. Ethan says

    I just want to pop in a little defense of Dawkins and the claim that he only preaches to the converted – it’s just not true, and I can personally attest. A year ago right now I was a theist and believed in god. I was very well educated in religion, having gone to Orthodox Jewish schools my entire life up until college, spending literally 4 hours every day studying the Bible and Talmud.

    My first real foray into the arguments that atheism held came from Professor Dawkins, and I will be grateful to him for as long as I can imagine. Now that I’ve soaked up much more rationalistic philosophy and epistemology, I have my disagreements with the man, but he was the one who flipped me. He made me realize that atheism wasn’t just a ‘doubt’ which is natural in this world that God made, but it was the actual compelling worldview.

    Sometimes you need to be slapped across the face and be told “hey, what you believe is insane, and I’m going to explain it as clearly as I can.” This approach may not work for everyone, but it worked for me, and you won’t find anyone in American who grew up in a more religious atmosphere and educational environment than me. Hell, at the end of high school I could practically speak Aramaic, that’s how much we studied the bible and its commentaries. And now I’m an atheist, and a quite happy one.

    So yeah, Dawkins’ does work.

  60. says

    Blake:…I also like the idea of replacing “theory” in other contexts, such as changing “theory of evolution” to “law” or “principle”, which have lofty, moral-sounding connotations.

    I basically agree in spirit, but the other issue here is not just misuse of the word “theory.” “Theory of Evolution” is sort of like “Theory of Chemistry.” I don’t think there is a theory of chemistry. There are a few theories as central dogma to chemistry (like how atoms stick together, or whatever) but there is not a “chemical theory”. Similarly, there is not an “evolutionary theory” or a “theory of evolution.”

    Conflating key, and distinct processes such as mutation, Mendelian processes (neo), selection, and so on into “theory” (or whateve you want to call it) allows for the following statement to “make sense”:

    “Evolution is wrong because complex features of life cannot arise from random mutation”

    That would be like saying about “the theory of chemistry”:

    “Chemistry must be wrong because polymers cannot get organized by the process of random motion of atoms and molecules”

    So I would advocate for just keeping it general. Evolutionary biology. There is no evolutionary theory. There are five or so theories that form the central dogma of evolutionary theory, plus a handful of constructs that form the core of genetics, and so on.

    Your “Chamberlain” discussion is interesting.

    Just for accuracy sake, do we believe that Chamberlain (the guy) broke down in the face of a great evil or was he simply a Nazi who wanted to see a united Aryan confederation of some kind? I simply have no idea, this is not an area I know much about.

  61. says

    PZ: The problem with the Science and WaPo opinion pieces is that he went beyond that into prescribing the content of our message, and basically took sides…

    Exactly!!!!! This is a concise version of what I have taken 30 pages to say. And not only it is not “your side” but it is not possible for many reasons including the strong case law of the land.

  62. says


    I would argue that if the whole framing conversation had been initiated by a scientist, science educator or at least someone who had actually been involved with science communication and knew something about it, it probably would not have turned out the way it has.

    True that, bro.

    But if we now have a conversation we can move into productive territory.

    Ethan: Wow. You just better pray Dawkins is right!!!!

  63. says

    There is still a shortage of specific examples, though. Being exhorted to do a better job of persuading people is OK, but what’s still missing is an explanation of how to frame something, other than doing the ever popular kick Richard Dawkins in the crotch, which wins people over all the time.

    As a person who is actively involved in politics, I get the idea behind framing. It is a matter of changing the level of discourse to make clear a complicated concept, and to do it persuasively so that people come round to a specific POV. The modern progressive framing is a reaction to the conservative framing that has been going on for 30 years (a planned response to the general public’s disenchantment with conservatives following Watergate.)

    So, here, from what I read of Mooney and Nesbitt, is an opportunity to counter the anti-science movement of the religious right, and the goofy far left. I mean countering the idea that science is anti-humanity, that it is unconstrained by ethics and only seeks to destroy faith, or seeks to make us GM-engineered soylent-green-eating post-modern masses.

    I don’t think that they should be putting the onus on science educators to re-frame; it really falls on the science popularizers to do a better job of shifting the discourse, whether this means that Mooney and Nesbitt themselves need to stop talking about framing and actually do some framing, or if it means that we need to book Zimmer for as many speaking engagements as possible.

    I fail to see how attempts to “muzzle” strong atheists to help increase respect for science is supposed to help. If some people don’t like Dawkins message, then that’s tough noogies, isn’t it? If religious framers want to make the equation that “real science = atheism”, then it is still on the public at large to forcefully break that meme.

    Atheism is a result of critical and skeptical thinking, just as science is a process that relies on critical and skeptical thinking; but one doesn’t automatically lead to the other (as much as I would hope that it should.) Muzzling Dawkins, Dennett, Stenger and the host of this dear blog doesn’t fix that meme. It only gives aid and comfort to the people that are trying to make the connection.

    Framing, in this context, is only going to be based on guesswork. It will be a piecemeal approach to a societal problem. The social sciences, as far as they have come in bringing about some understanding of human interactions, are still in their infancy. More effort should be made to understand why, using scientific methods, science is always fighting uphill battles for public acceptance.

    Imagine a doctor faced with a disease that is poorly understood. It kind of seems like influenza, but the doctor isn’t sure exactly whether it’s viral, genetic or caused by a staph. Would it be prudent to throw a bunch of cures at the disease without finding the cause? The reason that Mooney and Nesbitt can’t be specific enough about what they want PZ to do is because we still really don’t understand the cause. We can guess, but suppose our guesses make the disease worse? Suppose even an aspirin, such as trying to muzzle the atheists, reduces the fever so that natural cures are suppressed?

    Science isn’t up against religion only, it is up against indifference in a world obsessed with celebrity and celebrities’ personal lives, war, religion and marketing.

  64. matthew says

    There IS a sort-of-specific example of framing within the very first citation of the orginal C&M Science article and it goes a little something like this:

    “They [scientists] can rehearse the strong reasons to curtail the ongoing mass extinction while accepting the difficulty of predicting its most immediate impacts on human welfare, for example. They can use pictures of charismatic megafauna even while understanding that insects might be more important.

    To me, this is extremely dishonest to the point of blatent lying and is a recipe for failure.

  65. says


    Let’s say you are the WWF. You get a cute animal as your symbol (say, a Panda) but you raise funds to save all the animals and habitats. When you have success with saving a bug, you get your doners to a fund raising dinner and tell them about the bug and they get excited and write checks. When you save a wild kitty-cat, you put out a press release and write up the story in Scholastic publications and get all the 5th graders on board. When you save some pandas, you send the panda film to NBC and you get wide publicity. Is that bad?

    However, you don’t pick an owl, even a cute spotted owl, as your symbol because in western culture owls are ambiguous and often represent death or evil (as well as knowledge). If you use the owl as a key symbol, you can get daemonized. Wouldn’t this be good strategy? You’re still saving the bugs.

    You’ve got to do a harder sell job about the bugs … their role in the ecosystem etc. etc. … but the audience you do that for is more easily convinced of this.

  66. matthew says

    Greg, thank you for your response.

    Your points are valid but the example in the Science citation specifically states that the megafauna is not the principle organism of concern, yet it should treated as such.

    I do agree that it makes sense if you are trying to save a particular habitat that, all species being equal, you should highlight organisms that grab peoples attentions (and hopefully emotions) in a positive way. This is common sense and probably always done. But that is not what the Science citation was explaining.

  67. George says

    It’s just hilarious, the kind of evidence that Mooney and Nisbet are presenting for their claim that scientists “make the wrong assumptions” about what good communication with the public is all about and that framing makes all the difference in the world.

    First, to prove it’s all the scientists’ fault: Mooney presents a post from his blog from some woman who attends a university in Tennessee populated with young earth creationists and who claims that scientists there never speak up about evolution.

    Then, to prove framing is the answer: Nisbet presents Steve Case and the dysfunctional State of Kansas as the poster for what framing can do.

    Well, I guess that proves it, doesn’t it? Scientists suck at communication and framing works like a charm.

    So what are we arguing about?

  68. says

    Greg Laden: I have a third, more utopian-sounding goal which is also related. Namely, that kids growing up should find their own way of understanding the way the world works, their place in it, etc. (This is what is sometimes called a “world view”.) I would hope that the wonders and powers of science would make most people choose to integrate that sort of way of thinking, but forcing it is self-contradictory. I want people to be free to leave the dogmas they learnt at home and elsewhere behind and pick the cultural practices that they want, not their parents and popes want.

    Greg Laden (II): But there are theories in both evolutionary biology and in chemistry in the sense that “theory” is used in mathematics and logic – a hypothetico-deductive system.

  69. says

    Keith I: The burden of developing a world view or any kind of breadth of academic experience need not, and should not, fall in the science class. We have no problem whatever defining what science is, and only a little trouble working out which aspects of science need to be fit in the all too restricted available time. There is no question whatsoever that there is already not enough time to do what we need to do in the science classroom! Why is no one insisting that these things be stuffed into art class?

    Keith II: Yes, theories are there, of course. But there is not a thing called “Evolutionary Theory” that is a theory. The term “Evolutionary Theory” refers to the subset of evolutionary biology that deals with a set of theories (these days mainly about fitness, population dynamics, a few other things) and as such it does not even describe all of evolutionary biology. And there is no one “theory” that fully addresses evolution. I’m not talking here about multiple competing theories.

    For example, to make a jet plane work you need to do engineering etc.using aerodynamic theory as well as jet engine theory. There is not a “jet plane theory” that is as theory. There could be a thing called “jet plane theory” which refers to the practice of theorizing about the various theories you need to make a jet plane work.

    There are, then, two problems with the term “evolutionary theory” … one is about this framing thing … since people link “theory” with “I don’t really believe this” (like it or not, they do), the phrase “evolutionary theory” means “stuff we don’t really believe about evolution” to many people. That is one reason we don’t want to use it. The other problem is that the phrase “evolutionary theory” is meaningless if it is supposed to refer to some specific theory of evolution. Evolutionary biolgoy is mad up of many different hypothetico-deductive streams, linked and hopefuly not contradictory, but plural.

  70. Tony says

    Greg (et al) — Your commentary regarding the non-scientific public conflation of ‘Theory’ with ‘not proven’ is right on…

    in any regular (hypthotical) conversation, “I have a theory about that…” suggests that I’m guessing… maybe a smart guess, or some SWAG… but a guess none-the-less.

    Scientists talk a little more precisely and circumspectly about ‘theory’, and use it as a technical term to indicate a suite of well-connected and sustaining hypotheses which currently satisfy all tests we can think of…. i.e. since we can’t think of everything we can’t frame it as a law!

    This is the crux of the matter….

    I’m (with apologies) a consultant, and need to be excruciatingly careful about the language I use every day….

    I may KNOW what word ‘X’ means, both colloquially and technically…. but do I KNOW what the word might mean in a given context for my audience? generally not, and not without a lot of effort… So I need to be very smart about framing my statements to cater to my audience’s particular worldview and perceptions… regardless if I think my statement would be clearer, more exact, or more truthful when phrased in some other way.

    So how do I choose what to say & how to say it? to use a standard consultant throwaway — it depend’s!

    All conversations either need to be framed to explicitly invoke a common context (such as occurs in any novel!) or you need to assume a common context (such as between partners, colleagues, etc.).

    The assumption that everyone else simply ‘understands where you’re coming from’ is at the root of these issues!

    (and you thought consultant’s were the career equivalent of slime mold…. we’re actually (mostly) highly evolved & educated slime, thank you very much!)